The first time I saw her I was balancing a huge bag of mithai in one hand and trying to juggle out money from my wallet to pay the auto driver with the other. She stared at me for a moment and once I had paid off the auto guy, walked close and demanded to know what was in the bag.
I smiled. I did not know her, and neither did she know me. But something about the ‘difference’ in our ages made her demand seem very valid.
I tousled her hair and instead of answering her about what was in the bag, I shot a rhetoric, “Khaanaar?” (“Would you like to eat it?”)
Her eye shone and face lit up like the brightest lamp on Diwali. “Ho,” she answered in the affirmative and followed me inside the building.
Seeing her walk after me, the building watchman put up a show of fake alertness, “Leave tai alone,” he hissed, and looked at me expecting a thank you.
But luck had abandoned him long back and unfortunately he had to bear my tongue lashing for being so ‘impertinent’ with a child.
“Watchman kaka, ti lahaan mulgi ahe, asa kasa bolu shakta tumhi?” (“How can you speak with a child like that”?) I demanded.
He made funny noises and blurted out something to the effect of how he was trying to guard my interests.
Safely away from watchman kaka‘s prying eyes, we took the lift to my house and I proceeded to unpack the ‘goodies’ bag, her face still beaming as she waited expectantly.
“Naav kaay tuza?” (“What’s your name?”) I asked curiously.
“Gauri,” she replied, brushing aside a strand of hair that had got into her eyes.
I smiled broadly, “Maaza pan naav Gauri ahe,” I replied. She blushed and looked away.
By now, the mithai was on the table; Gauri picked up a couple of things, and smiling broadly said, “ata me jaate.” (I will go now). I smiled my consent and she dashed out of the door, “Parat ye,” (“Visit again”) I called out after her, and she shouted back an aye.
This was about three years ago.
I met her on and off a couple of times after that. Most times our conversation revolved around whether I have ‘khaaoo‘ for her and if not when would I be getting it.
Once when she had stayed a bit longer than usual, her mother, who assists in picking up the garbage from our colony came searching for her.
Thereafter, I saw her a couple of times absentmindedly swinging her feet from her perch on the garbage dumpster. Her mother was in it scouring for paper and dry waste, which she could sell at the local raddhi store.
“Hi tai,” she had waved out to me. I waved out, secretly worried about her.
Worried that she may catch an infection from the garbage, worried that unwelcome eyes may be prying around her, worried that misfortune may befall her, worried the way I was wont to, given that I was more ‘attuned’ to the ways of the world than her.
Two years ago when I went back home, I kept looking out for Gauri. But she was nowhere to be seen.
Finally I spotted her mother and fearing the worst asked her hesitantly about Gauri, bracing myself for the worst.
Her mother smiled and replied that Gauri was now put up in a hostel. A kind gentleman had offered to look after her education and she was now in a hostel close to Pune.
That day I must’ve said a million silent thank yous to the Power that be.